While the immediate attention is necessarily riveted on the candidates for and process of selecting the 16th head coach in franchise history, the underlying and more intense glare now turns to Ryan Pace, the first-time general manager hired to be the architect of a franchise turnaround that failed to materialize under the coaching of John Fox.
Pace’s was a situation with some complexity for the organization, specifically with respect to contracts. Pace finished the 2017 with two years remaining on his contract but was now moving into a search for a coach who will come with a minimum of a four-year contract, possibly five depending on the market and the coach’s pedigree.
Accordingly, President Ted Phillips announced an extension of Pace’s contract through the 2021 season, a contract extension for a general manager with a 14-34 record – the same mark that got his head coach fired.
The extension does send a message of continuity and stability to prospective coaching candidates, who can now conclude that their boss has the backing of his bosses. “To know that the organization is behind the general manager is important,” Phillips said.
The Bears have had GM-coach contracts out of phase in the past and it has created issues, though more typically where the coach is in place when a new GM is hired. Jerry Angelo inherited Dick Jauron in 2001, was expected to dismiss Jauron after that season, only to have the Bears surprise the NFL (and Angelo) with a 13-3 playoff season that effectively forced Angelo to extend Jauron in what proved to be some of the most acrimonious Bears negotiations of the last quarter-century.
Angelo was fired in 2012, leaving coach Lovie Smith in place for incoming GM Phil Emery. Emery summarily fired Smith after a 10-6 season because of continuing failure to reach the postseason.
Pace said the decision on Fox was not finalized until late Sunday night, in the aftermath of the loss at Minnesota. The move was clearly an emotional one for Pace, whose relationship with the veteran head coach was very good, beginning with Pace making the trip to Denver for the second 2015 hiring interview with Fox.
And Pace did not scapegoat or dump the failures of the past three years on Fox.
“I point the finger at myself as well,” Pace said. “But I feel good about where we are, better than I felt at this time last year,” adding “I have to do a better job
Fox correctly characterized the NFL as a results-based business. Pace’s results have been the concurrent with Fox’s, each making notable mistakes on the way to compiling one of the worst three-year marks in franchise history.
The full effect of Pace’s personnel acquisitions is difficult to fully assess if only because of significant injuries to two of the three most important additions of his regime, a tenure that has seen some three dozen players on injured reserve by the ends of the last two seasons.
“[The injury wave] is something that’s occurred for three consecutive years,” Pace said, noting that efforts had been made to change the strength, conditioning and nutrition aspects of the Bears’ program. “It’s something we’ve got to get on top of.”
In the cases of the top picks, these are unequivocally the foundation players for a franchise and the Bears have not seen the return from them, through no fault of the players:
Wide receiver Kevin White, No. 7-overall pick of the 2015 draft, who has just 5 starts, 21 catches and three broken bones in three years to show for his three NFL seasons. If there is anything encouraging it is that White has averaged 4 catches per game, respectable for someone who missed their entire rookie season; and… .
Linebacker Leonard Floyd, No. 9-overall pick of the 2016 draft, who missed games at three different times in his rookie season, which ended with a concussion in game 15, and went on IR this season and missed the final six games with a knee injury. “I’m doing good,” Floyd said on Monday. “I’ve got a good rehab process planned out. I plan on sticking to it and getting back.”
Pace now will be drafting in the top 10 (he traded up from 11 to 9 to grab Floyd) for the fourth straight year. This guarantees and means nothing in terms of talent acquisition, except that there hasn’t been enough of it. The Detroit Lions had top-10 picks for six straight years (2002-07), six years amid a run of 10 straight seasons with losing records.
Curiously, Pace has enjoyed more success in his three drafts than in his three years of work in free agency, even though his background is more on the pro-personnel side. “It’s not a business where there is a 90-percent success rate,” Phillips said, mentioning 60 percent as perhaps a more realistic standard.
On Pace’s watch, the Bears have committed tens of millions of dollars on free agents who, for reasons of age, simple performance, injury, fit or whatever, failed to deliver play levels even remotely close to value for the money. Foremost among them and their (guarantees):
Marcus Cooper, CB ($8 million) – opening-day starter, injured, lost starting job, notable for slowing down short of end zone vs. Pittsburgh and being overtaken.
Mike Glennon, QB ($18.5 million) – former Tampa Bay backup, lost starting job after four games, never took another ’17 snap. “With the quarterback position, I have no regrets in us being aggressive in attacking that position; it’s that important,” Pace said. “We all felt confident in Mike and sometimes in our business, things don’t work out. There’s a lot of factors involved. But fortunately for us, being aggressive at that position, in essence we took two swings.”
Pernell McPhee, OLB ($15.5 million) – No. 1 UFA target in ’15, impact player but could not get beyond knee, shoulder injuries, started just 17 games, 14 total sacks in 3 seasons.
Antrel Rolle, S ($4.9 million) – started 7 games, zero INT’s, 1 pass defensed, swore revenge on Bears after 2016 release but no one signed him.
Dion Sims, TE ($10 million) – 15 receptions, 180 yards and 1 TD in 14 starts; roster decision in Mar. when $4 million of $6 million ’18 base becomes guaranteed.
Pace and lead negotiator Joey Laine have been credited for doing a number of one-year, “prove it” deals (e.g., CB Prince Amukamara, K Connor Barth, DL John Jenkins, WR Kendall Wright). But if the best thing you can say about a contract is that it is relatively easy to get out of, the inescapable conclusion also is that you have not done that deal with anyone who qualifies as a building block for your franchise.
“Free agency is high risk and we understand that,” Pace said. “As we continue to build more through the draft, we can become more selective in free agency.”